Monday 31 October 2016

Wallcreeper, Lammergeier and Griffons

More of a trip report than my usual blog.

Way back in the spring I was casting about the internet for a late season tour  and I came across Naturetrek's "Wallcreepers and Cranes in Northern Spain". Subsequent analysis of all the trip reports indicated a 100% success rate with Wallcreepers so I signed up straightaway. After all it was a bird at the top of my wanted list. Sunday 23rd found me in the Ryanair check in queue for a flight to Zaragoza. The distinctive Naturetrek luggage label ensured that we were well and truly a group before we boarded the aircraft. For once Ryanair behaved and we arrived in Zaragoza on time, after a short break to get the vehicles we were on our way to Alquezar. Safely installed in the Maribel Hotel and after a nice dinner, a beer and several glasses of the local wine I racked out for a good nights sleep, confident that some good birds were going to be seen.

Monday 24th A Bit of a Washout

I awoke early in anticipation of a great birding day, unfortunately the weather forecast had proved to be accurate, apart from the singing Black Redstart, Robin and a distant Barn Owl calling, the dominant sound was that of heavy rain.  Standing on the balcony of my room as dawn broke it was obvious that today was going to be a tad difficult. Ironically, north east Spain has had a drought, nary a drop of rain in the last four months.

After breakfast and shrugging off the inclement conditions, we set off for the vulture feeding station at Santa Cilia, via Adhuesca to pick up vital picnic supplies. It was as we feared, a no show of the guide and a  cloud base close to ground level., so the vulture spectacle was cancelled. We made the best of it, touring round and sighting lots of LBJs but the rain continued. Even a search for Wallcreeper was ruined by low level cloud drifting down the gorge. We returned to the hotel at Alquezar feeling somewhat downcast.

At around 1700 the cloud and spirits lifted and NE Spain's drought resumed after a small hiccup. We all walked down through the village to a viewing point adjacent to the Collegiate church of Santa Maria. Much scanning gave Rock Dove, Rock Sparrow, Crag Martin, Blue Rock Thrush, the ubiquitous Black Redstart but no Wallcreeper. Ah well, we had at least kicked off the list.

The standard shot of Alquezar - a beautiful village.

Tuesday 25th  Wallcreeper Day

We all rose early and returned, pre-dawn,  to the viewpoint of the previous evening, already the lightening sky to the east indicated that we would have better weather for the day. The same birds were still present, distant Peregrine and Griffon Vultures added to the list and Pipistrelle and other larger unidentified bats flitted over our heads - still no Wallcreeper.

After breakfast we hit the road again, the warm sunshine raised expectations and everyone was keen. Finally, as we stood on a bridge over a deep gorge, a sharp eyed member of the group located a bird. Woo Hoo! a life tick, stunning views of a very obliging bird. It remained in our vicinity for about twenty minutes catching insects, dust bathing and flying directly beneath the bridge several times. Unfortunately it was never close, hence all the record shots are heavy crops.

The Strawberry Tree, Arbutus unedo, appears to be everywhere

Looks more like a Lychee to me.

It was around about this point that I regretted that I hadn't packed a macro lens, lots of subjects started to appear, butterflies, grasshoppers, beetles and millipedes to name a few. Our lunch venue had given us Cleopatra, unidentified Blues, lots of Speckled Woods showing the orange hue of the southern form and a cracking Western Conifer Seed Bug.

Post lunch we visited another gorge and caves containing neolithic paintings. On the footpath we came across an obliging Firecrest that sat still long enough for a record.

Firecrest posing nicely

This Griffon had delusions of grandeur trying to look like a Baldie.


As we had missed the vulture feeding any chance of a shot was taken, these opportunists hanging round a farmyard in the hope of a feed.

 On return to the hotel some of the group set off on a walk below Alquezar, as Naturetrek had magically managed to organise another visit to Santa Cilia I repaired to my room to prepare my gear for the next day.

Wednesday 26th Vulture Overload

On a perfect day we met Omar, our guide for the vulture feeding. He explained what would happen and how the birds would behave. As he briefed us I scanned the skies and couldn't find a single Griffon anywhere. As we made our way along the plateau one or two were idly circling above us, by the time we reached the site the place was awash with them. Some coming extremely close in anticipation of the free offerings.

There is obviously a strict pecking order within the vulture community as some of the birds just seemed to perch and watch the proceedings whilst other more dominant birds fought viciously for the offal and meat waste thrown onto the slope in front of us.

Waiting patiently

Drooling in anticipation


A big powerful bird

They do come close!

When all had calmed down we withdrew from the feeding site, hopefully for a Lammergeier to drop in for some of the remaining bones. Alas nothing turned up but as we ambled down hill back to the vehicles we were "bounced" by this chap. Oddly when I managed to get it in the viewfinder I thought that it was the wrong colour - adult Lammergeiers are orange breasted.

Omar the guide provided the answer, Lammergeiers "bathe" in soils containing iron oxide, with the continuing drought neither the water or damp soils necessary for the process were available - hence the white plumage identical to captive birds denied the luxury of a bath.



We returned to the plateau for our picnic lunch where we observed two Golden Eagles crossing the valley, slowly and in small groups the Griffons took off, caught a thermal and drifted away. No other Lammergeiers turned up but we left happy.

On our way down to Gallocanta, our base for the Cranes,  we dropped into a known venue for Black Wheatear, we all approached the cliff wall together and peered over. Yes! One in residence and posing - albeit a long way off - it may be a black blob on a rock to you but for me another life tick.


Thursday 27th Around Lake Gallocanta

Another early start, this time to observe the Cranes that roost on Lake Gallocanta leaving for their daytime feeding sites, Only one problem, the thick mist covering the lake and the immediate surrounding area.

Optimistic birders

I could hear 'em

A hint of what might have been seen

By the time we returned to the hotel the countryside was bathed in sunshine and I as I walked along the drive I was buzzed by a familiar object - a Humming Bird Hawk Moth. A search revealed three roosting specimens and a couple flying, all recorded without my trusty macro lens.

Back on the road again after a short break at the visitor centre where the group were filmed for an article on the local television station. Oddly it was being aired when we had a comfort and coffee break - God knows what the locals thought of it all - no one asked for an autograph.

Our lunch break afforded another chance to record some of the numerous butterflies that were on the wing, this time three blues  - Common Blue, Long-tailed Blue and Lang's Short-tailed Blue. Others were about but with temperatures around twenty five degrees they were a little lively.


Towards the end of the day someone spotted a flock of Little Bustards flying and managed to pinpoint where they landed. More keen eyes found them on the ground in dense grass but our attempts to get close were thwarted when they took to the air again.

Another life tick

Shame they didn't stay

As I sat at in my room, sorting out the day's photographs I was aware of a couple of birds outside the window. This chap was very obliging and sat in the evening sunshine, not disturbed by me opening the window and pointing a camera at him. Whilst I was doing this a Chiffchaff arrived and berated me but he wouldn't sit out in the sun where I could nail him.

Friday 28th Great Bustard, Black-winged Kite and Black Redstart

Being an ex seafaring person I do have superstitious tendencies; auguries, portents and omens all have their place. Stood in the hotel car park before first light we witnessed the entry of four meteorites into the earth's atmosphere, four "shooting stars" just have to be an indicator of a good birding day whatever your beliefs, and so it proved.

Under a waning crescent moon illuminated with Earthlight, the partial illumination of the dark portion of the moon's surface by light reflected from the Earth, we listened to the dawn singing of at least six Dupont's Larks. As a bonus, Jupiter below the crescent showing three moons in alignment.

Dupont's Lark has a song that is described as a repeated thin, melancholic whistling phrase, very ventriloquial and a nasal whistle given mainly at dawn and dusk or at night. Whatever, I was enthralled by it.

As the light came up the birds stopped singing and we left the  La Yunta site and returned to the hotel for a hearty breakfast.

Following breakfast the group decided to walk from Berrueco to Gallocanta. Having had the close Black Redstart on the previous evening I decided to give the walk a miss and go in search of an obliging male Black Redstart that would pose for a photograph. There was a heavy mist hanging in the valley and as I climbed the hill behind the hotel it thinned intermittently. Plenty of birds about, as well as the Black Redstarts I noted: Woodlark,Jay, Sardinian Warbler, Cirl Bunting, Serin and Rock Sparrows. When the mist descended the birds would disappear into the scrub, when the sun shone they would come out to forage amongst the large rocks. So I found a place to hunker down and wait for a photo opportunity,

First up was a female with a large beetle, followed by another female perched in a bush and finally a fine male who posed, as if to say "this is what you wanted - get on with it"

Then it was back on the trails around Lake Gallocanta in search of Bustards. During lunch we observed good numbers of Cranes rising on the thermals, circling up to 500' and then setting off in a WNW direction, obviously continuing their long migration during fair weather.

More driving on tracks after lunch; Little Owls are common, often on rooftops of barns and old dead trees and pretty flighty too. However, we managed to get close enough to one for some record shots.

Not long after this we had our third strike of the day, a keen eyed member of the group spotted five Great Bustards creeping away but already at a great distance. Once everyone had got a sighting we climbed into the vehicles and attempted to head them off further down the lake. The crafty creatures doubled back on themselves and left us once again with distant views. Just a couple of fuzzy records were all I could manage.

The fourth strike was achieved just as we were planning to return to the hotel. A Black-winged Kite had been reported in the area and we had spent considerable time scanning the trees and likely perches. This bird nested in the same area and raised three young last year, sadly this year it failed to find a mate but fortunately remained in the area, Just as I entered the mini bus a shout went up "found it" and we all enjoyed distant but satisfying views of the bird.

I did say it was distant

Saturday 29th Homeward Bound

On the road to Belchite our tour leader advised us that sometimes Spanish Ibex had been observed, pretty good info as within a couple of hundred metres we came across a family unit of nine. Obviously feeling safe they just slowly ambled up the far slope of the gorge.

There are two subspecies of Capra pyrenaica on the Iberian Peninsula  - C. p. hispanica and C. p. victoriae and I have a suspicion that these are victoriae - happy to be corrected

We skirted Belchite and the ruins of San Martín de Tours church in the old village are clearly visible. The village was destroyed by German bombers in the Spanish civil war, a conflict which tore through the country between 1936 and 1939. After the civil war there were a few inhabitants in the ruins however Franco wanted to send a message to ex republicans and decided that a new village be constructed next door and the village preserved as a monument to the irresistibility of the Nationalist forces.

We passed through Codo and on to El Planeron, unfortunately shrouded in mist. This is a large area of steppe land to the east of Belchite and is Dupont's Lark territory. Sadly today no sign whatsoever , so we parked up and enjoyed our final picnic lunch. Though we did see Calandra Larks, Lesser Short-toed Larks, Zitting Cisticola and three Black-bellied Sandgrouse. Several Pin-tailed Sandgrouse were heard calling but nothing visual.

Then an uneventful journey back to Stansted, Ryanair performing well again. (Did I really say that)


John and Jenny Willsher - superb guides - knowledgeable and entertaining, both blessed with the patience of Job doing a task that at times must have been similar to herding cats.

Naturetrek - superb organisation yet again.


None whatsoever